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Exploring the ghostly route of Minneapolis’ underground Bassett Creek

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
The buried section of Bassett Creek, visible only to urban explorers and users of Google Maps.

The world as we see it on the maps on the screens of our smartphones – which, if you’re like me, is one of the primary ways you experience it – isn’t always what it seems. Occasionally, the ghostly algorithmic cartographers of Google Maps will put some geographic or infrastructural feature across your path that exists on screen, but doesn’t seem to relate to anything you see once you look up from the your phone.

One of the best examples of this is found looking at the area around West River Parkway in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis, near Eighth Avenue North. Here, you can trace an inlet from the Mississippi River that attenuates into a thin blue stream about the same thickness as Minnehaha Creek, several miles south. This stream seems to run under the parkway, right between twin icons of Minneapolis haute cuisine Borough and Bar La Grassa, and then follow a course down Eighth Avenue. It runs beneath Fourth Street, then I-94, and then the Olson Highway. It follows a series of sharp, rectilinear turns through North Minneapolis, finally meeting up with Bassett Creek near Van White Memorial Parkway. From the look of the map from above, you could walk alongside this stream in a pair of waders, through parking lots and under roads. This ghostly water feature is marked “Bassett Creek.”

Switch to satellite mode, though – or better yet, visit in person – and you’ll see it’s not there. 

Not on the surface, anyway. This leg of Bassett Creek is there, but it’s buried well beneath the surface of your path, entombed in a culvert over a century old and 80 feet down, in the remains of a deep valley that once carried the prehistoric Mississippi River. That’s where it drains, too, and not the opposite – the creek originates at Medicine Lake, and runs aboveground for miles before it disappears beneath the ground somewhere around Dupont Avenue and breaks off into a few branches. Why this particular branch shows up on Google Maps so prominently is unclear, but it’s a good excuse to follow a meandering path through the city trying to walk along the banks of the creek above.

Many have followed the same path, but below. Bassett Creek is sort of legendary among certain subsets of the Twin Cities population, or at least for those in the middle of the Venn diagram where interests in neglected histories, environmental science and reckless urban exploration converge. I remember hearing stories about Bassett Creek for years, the buried creek beneath downtown that may or may not have been the one-time northern equivalent of Minnehaha Creek. 

Where Bassett Creek empties into the Mississippi.

In fact, Bassett Creek has been the subject of more literary accounts than other, better-known water features of the city. Meleah Maynard’s 2000 City Pages cover story is perhaps the definitive account of the creek’s history and present. Besides the dozens of nameless scribblers who wrote about Bassett Creek, the so-called “Venice of Minneapolis,” for the city’s dailies before it was buried in the 1910s, a good bibliography of the creek would also include contributions from city park historian David C. Smith, urban explorer Greg Brick, and the indefatigable men and women of The Explorer’s Club, who produced a semi-quarterly zine of the late 1980s, one issue of which was devoted to exploring the submerged creek. It’s Bassett Creek’s non-visibility – its there-but-not-there quality – that makes it such an attractive subject. I wonder how many frustrated would-be explorers have seen it on their iPhone screens while waiting for an Uber on Washington Avenue, and tried to drunkenly chase it down the alley behind Bunker’s, only to come up empty-handed.

Urban explorers have most prominently turned out accounts of the entombed creek, complete with all sorts of fascinating reports: waterfalls (one dubbed “Niagara”), mushroom colonies, disgusting floating sex trash from Déjà Vu, vestigial sawmill-era logjams, early building foundations, monstrous spiders, and schools of freed goldfish who’ve survived execution by toilet. The mouth of the creek near the river is undeniably entrancing, a gaping, stone-lined medieval hellmouth that begs to be explored.

I have not the budget, training or abilities to make that particular trip, so I leave those accounts to writers like Greg Brick, who recounts his various trips in a chapter of his “Subterranean Twin Cities.” We’ll just be following it above the surface. Considering how often you need to traverse major roads and highways, it’s probably almost as dangerous above. 

There’s somewhat of a belief, evident in the body of literature, that Bassett Creek was a sort of squandered recreational and beautification opportunity for the area. That may be true, but if it was, it certainly was not the case by 1870. Even accounts of the valley from that early time in the city’s modern history veer between “open sewer” and “industrial saw mill hell.” (Bassett, incidentally, was the name of the New Englander who built the first sawmill on the banks in 1850 and set the creek on its half-century run of industrial use.)

The Bassett Creek trail. The creek itself is far below here.

By 1913, when it flooded badly and stranded a number of families living along the banks, its title as “the Venice of Minneapolis” in Tribune headlines was completely immersed in bitter sarcasm. The stream was covered between downtown and the near northside, and a series of rail lines, mills, then oil refineries and interstates sprouted atop the area. Around Glenwood, the area atop the buried creek became home to Sumner Field Homes, some of the first modern public housing in the city. And though the stream couldn’t be seen, the soil retained a sogginess that made building on the land very difficult over the course of the last half of the 20th century. The land atop Bassett Creek, at first heavily Scandinavian, then Ashkenazi Jewish, then African-American, tended to be sequestered and segregated from the rest of the city by a succession of industrial sites and then highways and sound walls. Recently created lakes around Van White Boulevard are maybe the first reminder in a century of this area’s wetland origins.

This leg of the stream runs beneath an interesting historical plaque located at Aldrich and Highway 55, about halfway between the mouth of the creek and where it goes underground. The near northside has been an African-American community for nearly a century, and the marker noting educator and reformer Gertrude Brown is located near the onetime location of the Phyllis Wheatley House, which was one of the many buildings razed for I-94 in the 1960s. Gertrude Brown presided over its founding in the 1920s. 

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A stretch of the uncovered portion of Bassett Creek in the 1930s.

The Phyllis Wheatley Community Center remains a northside institution, thanks to Brown’s leadership in its early days. Her hiring was a major coup for the organization. Born in North Carolina to former slaves, she was involved in education and organizing there, Atlanta and Ohio in the 1900s and 1910s, and received a degree from Columbia University in 1923. The next year, she relocated to Minneapolis to run the Wheatley House, a community center, boarding house and educational organization that served as the nexus of African-American life in Minneapolis. Under her leadership, the organization grew exponentially, expanding into a newer, larger building, hosting local meetings of the NAACP and Pullman Porters union, and hosting Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson when they visited the Twin Cities.

Cutting across the surface over the creek, it’s impossible to know there was ever anything other than relatively flat, developed urban landscape here. Topographically, there’s little trace of any sort of valley. That submerged creek has had a great deal to do with how the stretch of city between the river and the main stretch of Bassett Creek aboveground has been alternately abused, built over, utilized and lived on for a century and a half. It’s fitting that it shows up on Google Maps, not as a navigable pathway, but as a ghostly electronic reminder of how the human relationship with the natural world defines the shape of a city, even when it’s buried 80 feet below the earth.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Brian Krause on 01/13/2017 - 09:22 am.

    Action Squad

    Checked the action squad site hoping for reports of a mission to Bassett Creek but didn’t find anything. Know of any pictures from any of the underground trips?

  2. Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 01/13/2017 - 09:47 am.

    Action Squad

    I was surprised I didn’t find any on their site, either. There wasn’t much in any of the usual public places, either. I’m sure there’s some out there, but I guess they’re more likely of the “by request only” variety.

  3. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 01/13/2017 - 10:27 am.

    Bassett Creek

    I recall my mother, born in 1923 near 40th and Colfax N, talking about childhood adventures to Bassett Creek, but I don’t think I ever saw it.

  4. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 01/13/2017 - 11:32 am.

    South Branch

    The south branch is just as interesting (and also visible on Google Maps). After passing under Van White Memorial Boulevard, it enters a culvert near a Minneapolis Public Schools bus maintenance facility. From there it makes its way toward Target Field, where it actually runs directly beneath the visitors clubhouse and the third base stands.

    Eventually it joins the maze of other subterranean pathways beneath downtown, before emptying into the river near the Mill City Museum, much farther downstream than its original natural path.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 01/13/2017 - 12:40 pm.

    The Creek as Political Alibi

    This is an interesting and detailed article. To add a historical sidelight, Bassett Creek was used as a secondary reason for the notorious Hollman Project related to the Hollman v. Cisneros case. The City claimed that Bassett Creek’s underground path near the present Van White Boulevard undermined the physical integrity of the Sumner-Field public housing townhomes. But the supposed improper concentration of race and poverty was the main reason given in argument to tear down the complex and offer the residents–many of whom wanted to concentrate among one another–vouchers to relocate.

    Reality was that the City wanted to do a redevelopment project using federal money, and it did so on the basis of a highly questionable–I would say phony–civil rights argument. Hypocrisy dripped from the lips of City officials and of those handling the lawsuit, particularly in view of the fact that the 1300+ unit Riverside Plaza complex owned by Sherman Associates–one of the City’s insider favorites– represented a concentration of race and poverty many times higher than the Sumner-Field housing. The City has continued to shower the Sherman empire with favors, and Sherman has continued to milk Riverside Plaza as a subsidized cash cow.

  6. Submitted by Joseph Holiday on 01/13/2017 - 01:34 pm.

    Bassetts Creek

    As a adventurous teen, early 60’s, I made the trip from it’s opening at the Mississippi to it’s entry where it goes under ground somewhere west of the old Munsingware building, one of those too late to turn back might as well see where this goes. The water was filthy polluted with oil and who knows what, there were industries located along it’s way that just dumped whatever waste they needed to get rid of. Surprisingly Carp thrived which was my initial goal but then it turned into an adventure, I don’t know if this can be done in this day and time with all the rules and security issues, I don’t think I would recommend it but I’m older and wiser now.

  7. Submitted by Joseph Finley on 01/13/2017 - 10:01 pm.

    Bassetts Creeek

    Great article, thanks!

    The south branch that ends near the Mill District I recall was rebuilt by the U,S. Corp of Engineers some years back. I have always wondered where exactly that outlet is located. The creek itself has always fascinated me, being the poor cousin of Minnehaha. I wish I had been bold enough to have explored the tunnel while younger. I have seen some photos of the tunnel interior somewhere, which I, alas, cannot recall.

  8. Submitted by Daniel Burton on 01/14/2017 - 09:37 am.

    Bassett Creek went through my old basement.

    You could see ducks down there. In the 1980s I lived in the Itasca Building (708 N. 1st St) and in the lowest level there was a glass atrium over the creek. It was sorta cool… it did compel me at the time to research it a bit, but I never made the voyage. I was a little worried about the ducks, but I guess they were fine.

    • Submitted by Elliot Novak on 03/20/2018 - 10:19 am.

      RE: Bassett Creek went through my old basement

      Based on your comment, I visited the coffee shop “In the loop coffee company” on the first floor of the Itasca building. The owner of the cafe gave me a little tour and said the glass atrium/window was from the days it was a children’s museum and has since been covered up. She gave me a little tour, as far as her keys would go, and suggested I stop by some morning and ask the facilities people to show me around the lower basement. Pretty cool that the staff are open to entertaining the curiosity of folks.

      The cafe owner also said current residents have stories of kayaking from the Mississippi outflow (right by Itasca building) all the way to where the tunnel starts. Since I think the tunnel system may have changed over time, I take these stories with a grain of salt as to whether it’s still possible to do that.

      • Submitted by Lizzy Luke on 08/02/2018 - 09:30 am.

        Bassett Creek

        You can still kayak down the tunnel. I was just there on Monday July 30th. I didn’t know that is was Bassett Creek till I talked to a co-worker. We just saw a cool huge tunnel that was big enough to kayak down. Only had a cell phone on us so we only went in a little ways (maybe a block or two). But then went back with real lights the next night. Went in for about 45 minutes. The creek started to bottom out with sand. Now I need to get rubber boots and go back in to explore more. There is a lot of wood in there. A full tree some how got stuck in there. My friend got stuck turning around because she tried turning around with too much wood in the water. Had to get out of my kayak into the murky water to her unstuck.. It was gross!!!! But fun to explore.

  9. Submitted by Bert Sheal on 01/14/2017 - 10:01 am.

    Bassett’s Creek vs Basset Creek

    Even within the comments section there’s dispute as to whether it’s Bassett’s or Bassett Creek. I’ve noted that the signage around Bryn Mawr labels it Bassett’s Creek but if you go further upstream into Golden Valley it’s labelled Basset Creek. Another of life’s mysteries.

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